Originally created 09/16/97

Can this marriage be saved?



"Alan avoids me completely," sighs Gwen, a 41-year-old public relations consultant. "Even on weekends, he won't talk, won't do anything with me, and when I try to talk to him, he zones out."

Alan is particularly unresponsive whenever Gwen brings up a medical problem. "I have some very real medical problems, which started about two years ago - arthritis in my hip that's so bad it's difficult to walk, plus asthma triggered by the arthritis medication. I don't appreciate the fact that he takes it all so lightly."

Alan inevitably gets a bored look on his face and rolls his eyes. "I know he's thinking, `Here we go again - more complaints,"' says Gwen. She can't even mention something practical, like the fact that the roof is leaking in the living room, without feeling as if she's talking to a wall.

Alan's lack of empathy reminds Gwen very much of her mother, an emotionally distant woman who never paid any attention to her. "The only time Mother talked to me was when she criticized me or complained about how unhappy she was," Gwen recalls. Her father, a highly regarded astronomy professor, was an alcoholic who was never available, and Gwen often felt ignored and unloved.

"I expected more from my husband," she says. "I don't want him to fawn over me, but can't he at least ask me a few questions, instead of angrily accusing me of being a hypochondriac and making light of my pain?"

Her husband's complete lack of concern is so infuriating that before she can help herself, Gwen is yelling and screaming. "That's the only way I can get his attention," she says.

She is convinced that her husband of 10 years simply doesn't care anymore.

Alan, 35, a systems analyst for a defense contractor, knows he hasn't been very supportive. "In the beginning, I was. But after two years of listening to one complaint after another, the moment I walk in the door at night, even the Dalai Lama would lose patience. She' a hypochondriac, and I can't deal with it anymore," he says flatly.

The son of a physician, Alan's attitude toward medical problems is the opposite of his wife's. "Gwen's policy is to pop a pill and feel better. There are 25 prescription bottles in her side of the medicine cabinet. She'll call the doctor for any ailment - and I think that's ridiculous."

Alan comes from a family of stoics who believed that if you were sick, you were weak. His attitude: Tough it out. Though he was initially attracted to Gwen's energy and verve, now he wonders what happened to the woman who used to be so much fun. "I try to be there and help her out, but she obsesses and overreacts to every little ailment and every problem. This total self-absorption turns me off," he notes.

Braided dialogue

"Gwen and Alan are locked in a power struggle triggered by their very different styles of communication and resolving problems," says Susan Heitler, a marriage and family therapist in Denver. "Gwen talks incessantly, even filling up the pauses in her husband's conversation in an attempt to connect with him and analyze every angle of a problem.

"Alan tends to pull inward and zero in on a quick solution. The result is a hard-to-break cycle of conflict escalation. Gwen's health problems are the catalyst for an inevitable communications logjam. The trouble is, as Alan backs off from conversation, he's also backing away from intimacy and, ultimately, from the marriage."

The braided dialogue can help a spouse approach a mate and ask for help in a way he can hear and respond to positively.

In a braided dialogue, each partner first shares feelings and then, after listening to the spouse, adds additional information piece by piece, in much the same way you braid a child's hair. To keep the conversation flowing, you must use such phrases as: I want, I would like, I'm concerned, I feel, instead of: I don't want or I hate.

For example, if Gwen says, "The roof is leaking, and I'm concerned we may need a new one," instead of ignoring her or saying, "That's ridiculous, it's only leaking in one little spot - besides, we're spending far too much money lately," Alan learned to say: "It is important that we look into all leaks. I'll take a look at it, and then we can see what our options are."

In a braided dialogue, you add additional comments or ask questions based on what your partner has said. For instance, Alan might say: "I see our neighbors down the street just put on a new roof. I'll ask them for the name of their contractor so we can get an estimate of what it all costs." This way, Gwen's original need is attended to, as is Alan's concern about money.

Be sure to check things out before reacting. Gwen often short-circuits her own efforts by assuming that she can read Alan's mind and getting angry at what she thinks he's feeling. Now, she asks calmly before reacting and, since Alan is so much more responsive in general, her anxieties no longer get the better of her.

By the editors of Ladies' Home Journal